1858  — 1925

William Wharton Cassels

(Part 1 of 3)

A member of the famed “Cambridge Seven” who joined the China Inland Mission in 1885; pioneer evangelist; Anglican missionary bishop of Western China (Sichuan). One of the foremost missionaries of his time, who possessed great gifts of organization, he understood the Chinese and was held in great veneration by them.

Early Life and Education

William Wharton Cassels [pronounced Cas SELLS] was born March 11, 1858, in Oporto, Portugal, the ninth child and sixth son of John Cassels, a merchant, and Ethelinda Cox. Their home had a large garden where, with his siblings, he enjoyed many hours outdoors and came to love “the open life.” Every morning his father led the family in reading the Gospels, Epistles, and Psalms from the Book of Common Prayer, and every Sunday they all attended the Anglican chapel in the British consulate.

Their parents also taught the children how to play both indoor and outdoor games, and nurtured in them a love of life and humor.

Their mother played a huge role in their lives. His older brother recalled: “In childhood she was mother, nurse, doctor, teacher and priest; in maturity she was still a mother, and with it our most intimate and sympathetic friend, a friend gifted with great common sense, and able to take the particulars of life that each had however different from those of the others, the holder of our secrets and encourager; and ever remembering the needs, worries, and aspirations of each one of us in her prayers” (M. Broomhall 12).

Even as a child, he possessed a violent temper which, though he learned to control its expression, led those who knew him to feel that “beyond his shy and reserved exterior there slumbered the pent-up fires of a formant volcano” (M. Broomhall 13).

Both of his parents inculcated in the children a profound care for the poor, especially the “ever present maimed and deformed beggars… To all such the father and mother were kind and thoughtful, so that their children learned to follow in their footsteps of mercy” (M. Broomhall 14).

William’s father being quite ill, the family moved to England in March 1868, when he was ten. Sadly, Mr. Cassels died soon after arriving in England. William began his elementary education in a day school run by a clergyman in Stroud, Gloucestershire. Later in 1869, the family moved again, and he entered Percival House school, first as a day student and then as a boarder. Throughout his years in school and college, he invested himself more in sports than in his studies, gaining distinction as an excellent rugby player known for toughness and tenacity. Short and stocky, he excelled. His brother comments: “Williams’s taking football as seriously as he did when a boy presaged the whole-hearted earnestness with which he afterwards looked on life” (M. Broomhall 22).

After the Percival School, he entered Repton, a prestigious secondary school, where he met Stanley Smith and forged a friendship that would last for decades as they worked together in China. In 1877, Cassels matriculated at St. John’s College, Cambridge University. Here again, “he was never a ‘book-worm’ but rather a man of action, and he did not distinguish himself as a scholar, being perhaps more addicted to sport than books” (M. Broomhall 26).

Entering the Ministry of the Word

He was a serious-minded young man, however. “From early years he had been conscious of God’s call to service… From a child he had known the Holy Scriptures … and he had been possessed with an ever-deepening sense of his responsibility to proclaim their message” (M. Broomhall 28). After earning a B.A. in Theology and taking further studies, he was ordained as a Deacon in the Anglican Church in June 1882 and a priest in 1883.

He served as curate of All Saints’ Church, South Lambeth, until 1885, under the leadership of a strong Evangelical, Allen Edwards, with whom he formed a close working relationship. Observers called them “Jonathan and David.” “To the work in the open air, or pulpit or Sunday School – over one of which he acted as clerical superintendent – he gave himself as wholly and unreservedly as he had formerly done to sport” (M. Broomhall 30). Always mindful of the needs of the poor, who were numerous in this district, he frequently took them to the market, where he purchased food for them.

“The pews, the aisles, even the chancel and pulpit steps were packed with people on Sundays, and three thousand children filled six Sunday schools. This training for the future could scarcely have been better” (A.J. Broomhall 6.338.)

A friend who went with him wrote, “His great factor in life was undoubtedly in ‘the power of prayer,’ and Mr. Cassels seldom visited any home, rich or poor, without he and those whom he visited spending some portion of the time in prayer” (M. Broomhall 32). Equally potent in the lives of his flock was his own relationship with Christ. His biographer records, “Into the dark and sometimes sorrowing homes of the people he would go carrying the radiance of the Gospel story and of his own enjoyment of it” (M. Broomhall 35).

Cassels had long sensed God’s leading to become a foreign missionary, however. Through his friendship with Stanley Smith, his mind turned towards China. As an ordained minister in the Church of England, he applied to the Church Missionary Society, but was told that the CMS were not at that time to open a new work in the interior of China. He then approached the China Inland Mission, by which Stanley Smith had already been accepted. Eventually, he went out with the famed “Cambridge Seven,” a group of well-born, highly educated, and prominent young men.[1]

His mother objected to his going at first, so Hudson Taylor told her to pray about the matter and counseled Cassels to wait until she gave her blessing. This she did a short time later, opening his way to leave home and go with the “Cambridge Seven” to China. We can scarcely now appreciate the enormous impact made by this group of earnest young men upon Christians in the United Kingdom, especially university students. Their zeal for Christ and his kingdom, expressed in passionate addresses to packed meetings, ignited a missionary movement that had far-reaching consequences.

The upsurge of interest in foreign missions resulted from a wide movement of renewal sparked by the evangelistic campaigns of D.L. Moody and others. Of the Cambridge Seven, Eugene Stock wrote, “No such event had occurred before; and no event of the century has done so much to arouse the minds of Christian men to the tremendous claims of the field, and the nobility of the missionary vocation” (quoted in M. Broomhall 42). Nominal Christians were awakened when they heard the Seven say that “they were going to China because they knew that the Gospel was the power of God unto salvation,” and that “[t]hey knew it by experience… The manifest joy of these men in leaving all to follow Christ was contagious. Theirs was no reluctance in obeying Christ, but rather an overmastering passion” (M. Broomhall 43-44).

Early Days in China

On his baggage, Cassels had placed labels with two words: “‘GOD FIRST.’ His zeal and love were all ablaze and could not be hid… And nothing ever dulled the edge of his devotion… To the end he was always keen and ardent, never luke-warm” (M. Broomhall 49-50). A few days after arriving in China, Cassels wrote to his mother that he had been meditating on Jesus’ promise in John 7:37-39, commenting that in coming years “there will be perpetual satisfaction and perpetual streams of never-failing water! How glorious! The Lord is a never-failing portion” (M. Broomhall 51).

The Seven were welcomed in Shanghai by Hudson Taylor in March 1885. After a brief introduction to the CIM headquarters, Taylor began to give them opportunities to share their spiritual zeal with other missionaries in Shanghai and then in Beijing and Tianjin. As they waited upon God in prayer for the fullness of the Holy Spirit, they received even more power to speak to the hearts of people older and more experienced than they, with remarkable effect. The missionaries in each place were humbled, challenged, and revived.

“But,” adds his biographer, “the stern and hard realities of the foreign field were not far removed … From Peking the plunge into the interior began. Now the austere and naked truths of life in Inland China confronted him after the elation and enthusiasms of past months” (M. Broomall 59). Even worse than the exhausting travel by cart over rough roads and insect-ridden inns was the awful “experience [of] the painful helplessness of life among a strange people whose language he could not speak,” made more difficult by his “ardent temperament” (M. Broomhall 60-61).

They travelled to Pingyangfu in Shansi, where Hoste, Smith, Beauchamp, and Cassels studied Chinese with a local Christian for three months. During this time, they met the remarkable Pastor Hsi (Xi Shengmo) and saw how God was working in and through gifted Chinese believers. Then Taylor sent Cassels and Beauchamp to a small town further west, where no one could speak English. He suffered the usual temptations of a new missionary but learned to rely on God. Life alone in another place thrust him further upon God and gave more experience of fellowship with Chinese Christians.

After several months in Shanxi, Cassels joined Beauchamp, Smith, and Hoste for ten days of worship and fellowship in Taiyuanfu with Hudson Taylor, whose messages on “the all-sufficiency of Christ” refreshed their spirits. Then they went to Hungtung, where they were present for the ordinations of Pastor Hsi and another Chinese leader. Although he was eager to go further west, Taylor ordered him to stay a few months longer in Pingyangfu, where he got to know John Stevenson, Taylor’s recently appointed deputy in China. They forged a relationship of trust that would sustain Cassels for many years, as Stevenson served as his long-distance superintendent and pastor. As an ordained minister, he had often been called upon to officiate at weddings of missionaries. As a single man, he received repeated exhortations to find a wife, but he had resolved to remain single and would not change.

While with Stevenson, Cassels frankly shared with him his growing concerns about the non-denominational nature of the CIM. He differed strongly from Taylor and other members of the CIM on the matters of infant baptism and ordination. He respected other views but was uncomfortable with the ordination of Pastor Hsi by Taylor.

He described himself as a “lover of order,” by which he meant the liturgical services of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, the threefold ministry prescribed by the Prayer Book (more on this below), with its clear authority structure, and the security of being under the authority of the Anglican bishop in Shanghai, who was G.E. Moule. He did not like to act independently, but often waited for instructions from Moule and from Stevenson, the CIM Superintendent, even after he was appointed by Hudson Taylor as CIM’s Assistant Superintendent of Sichuan.

Cassels also preferred the rather detailed description of Christian doctrine given in the Articles of Religion (often called “The Thirty-Nine Articles”) at the back of the Book of Common Prayer over the more general statements of evangelical convictions required of CIM members.

Early Years in West China

Wisely, Hudson Taylor, who believed that CIM members should cooperate with those of like mind, sent him to Sichuan, in the western part of China, where, together with Arthur T. Polhill-Turner and Montagu Proctor-Beauchamp, the three established a proper Church of England diocese in the populous province.

Cassels eagerly set out for the West. Along the way, he saw hardly any mission stations, and the farther he went, the greater the need of China’s millions impressed him. Crossing a mountain ridge, he saw in the distance the eastern edges of Sichuan. All of a sudden, the sun “burst through the clouds and flooded all the landscape with glory” as he looked upon the sphere of his life’s work. The words of Isaiah 60:1 came to him, “Arise, shine, for your Light has come… For, behold, darkness shall cover the earth … but the Lord will arise upon you and his glory shall be seen upon you.” He never forgot this experience, which he took as a confirmation from God that he had been selected to bring the gospel to this vast province.

He decided to settle in Paoning, now called Langzhong, which was both a political and religious center of the area, with Buddhist and Confucian temples in abundance and many Muslims. After an initial exploratory visit, he settled there in 1887.


Though he had long refused to follow advice to seek a wife, Cassels seemed excited to learn that Miss Mary Louisa Legg was coming to China to serve as a missionary with the CIM. They had known each other when she had worked as a teacher in a school in London, which led her to join All Saints’ Church, where Cassels was curate. She spent her first few months in the ladies’ language school. While there, she received a letter from Cassels, with whom she obviously had a relationship, that he intended to remain single.

At that time, she was known as “a diligent student of the language, a lovable and beautiful soul, personally attractive, somewhat forceful and masterful in character, and with ‘a voice like a bird’” (M. Broomhall 95). When they finally met after not having seen each other for two years, Cassels’ resolution to remain unmarried fell beneath the hammer blows of romantic love. He searched his heart and sought to know God’s will, finally deciding that he should respond to her love for him. They were engaged in March of 1887.

Despite this new love, his primary passion was for communion with Jesus Christ. “I have utterly lost my heart on Jesus,” he wrote to Stevenson. Agreeing with a letter that the CIM Superintendent had sent to his workers, Cassels replied, “The great matter before us … is to glorify God by saving souls… We want to preach the Gospel to every creature in Szechwan; we want a wave of converting power to roll over the province, and we want each Christian to be stamped with the mark ‘Holiness to the Lord’” (M. Broomhall 98).

After long delays, during which he applied himself assiduously to language study, he was able to settle in Langzhong, and was soon joined by others, including several from the Cambridge Seven in August 1887. He and Mary Louisa Legg were married in the Anglican cathedral in Shanghai on October 1887. After receiving his license to minister in Sichuan as an Anglican “priest” (presbyter), he left with his bride for their new home. On the way, he was once again profoundly impressed by the vast spiritual needs of millions who had never heard of Christ. They arrived in Langzhong in the middle of January 1887.

Immediately, the mission premises were deluged, even overwhelmed, with huge crowds of people eager to see the first foreign woman to come there. Shortly after that, throngs of students who had come for the annual examinations took all their time every day. They were hard pressed on every side, and begged their friends to pray that they would be examples to the Christians and seekers around them, as well as “the outpouring of [the Holy Spirit] upon the unconverted heathen and on the Chinese Christians,] as well as [for us], His messengers and the bearers of the Bread of Life” (M. Broomhall 115).

“A Wise Master Builder”

His biographer writes:

The work from the beginning was nurtured by William Cassels as a true father in God. He was then the only one in Holy Orders [that is, ordained] and was accepted as the natural leader… From the beginning it is easy to recognise the impress of his spirit and character. He was the organizer with marked gifts in that direction, but before organisation he put life and spiritual vitality. God’s blessing to him was paramount, and his first desire was for the fruits (sic) of the Spirit both in himself and in his fellow-workers. He believed that the foundations [of the church] could not be laid apart from Patience, Humility, Confidence, and Love, and all who knew him testify that in these graces he abounded…
We always kept every Friday as a day of prayer and fasting [wrote one of his co-workers], whether we were together or – as was more constantly the case – whether we were living in inns…
I was especially struck [wrote another] with the prayer atmosphere pervading the home and the work. At the weekly day of fasting and prayer Cassels was in his elements. The messages God gave us through him were always helpful and his prayer uplifting. He was indeed a man of prayer; therein lay his strength. And he was strong, strong in the Lord (M. Broomhall 118).

This spirit of prayer impressed everyone around him and became their habit as well. It is no surprise that, years later, Hudson Taylor would write “Mr. Cassels’ department is surpassed by nothing in the Mission for spirituality or success” (M. Broomhall 119).

We must remember this life of nearness to God as we survey and evaluate the extraordinary impact Cassels had on all who met him, and the solid and steady growth of the churches that grew up under his guidance and leadership.

Cassels not only taught his people to pray for each other and for their work, but brought before them the spirituals needs and missionary labors of others around the world. For example, he began a “missionary course of lectures on missionary work in New Zealand, Sierra Leone, and Uganda, etc… Breadth and depth with him were not incompatible” (M. Broomhall 120).

Here is an account of the routine work of the mission station at Paoning:

At 7 A.M. we have family prayers (Chinese); then after breakfast at 7:30 our own time of prayer, etc., Then we have a meeting with the opium patients and outsiders, when we explain the more rudimentary truths of the Gospel. Then there are medications to be given to the patients, and sometimes to other sick folk, and guests to be received.
At dusk we always have a united meeting when some thirty or forty people assemble, including many inquirers. On Tuesdays there are some accounts of the [CIM and Anglican] work elsewhere; on Thursday an Old Testament reading [teaching], and on Fridays a meeting for Christians only. Besides this there are the Sunday services, and on the 1st and 15th of each Chinese month we have a special early morning prayer meeting for those who are then bowing before idols (M. Broomhall 120).

Sundays were especially full, “starting with an English service at 7:20 A.M., followed by public services for the Chinese, then by classes, Sunday schools, and other forms of activity. But his keen evangelistic zeal early found expressions in special efforts,” such as a week of meetings to explain the gospel to inquirers, with “after meetings,” when they dealt with candidates for baptism. His heart for the lost found expression in sentences like this: “What masses there are around us lying in darkness and in the shadow of death! Oh for a band of Christians all on fire, who would go forth to win them for God” (M. Broomhall 121).

[1] “The Cambridge Seven” were D.E. Hoste, Stanley Smith, William Cassels, C.T. Studd, Montagu Beauchamp, and the two brothers, Cecil and Arthur Polhill-Turner.

To be continued…This is Part 1 of 3.


Broomhall, Marshall. W. W. Cassels: First Bishop in Western China. London and Shanghai: China Inland Mission, 1926.

Broomhall, A.J. Hudson Taylor & China’s Open Century. Book Five: Refiner’s Fire. London: Hodder & Stoughton and the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, 1985.

____________________________________________. Book Six: Assault on the Nine, 1988.

____________________________________________. Book Seven: It Is Not Death to Die!, 1989.

Published as two volumes with the title, The Shaping of Modern China: Hudson Taylor’s Life and Legacy. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, and Carlisle, UK: Piquant Publications, 1905.

About the Author

G. Wright Doyle

Director, Global China Center; English Editor, Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA.